Saturday 22 August 2015


(Phil Joanou, 1990)

State of Grace came out in 1990, something of a banner year for mob stories in Cinema. Goodfellas, The Godfather Part III, Abel Ferrara's King of New York and another Irish-Mob movie, Millers Crossing were all released in 1990, and in the midst of those heavyweights, State of Grace got a little lost. But its a great little movie, surprisingly intense, dark and serious, and featuring three terrific performances from its leading men. it tells the story of Terry Noonan (Sean Penn) and his return to Hells Kitchen, the Irish neighbourhood of New York where he grew up running with teen hoods Jackie and Frankie Flannery (Gary Oldman and Ed Harris). Only now Noonan is an undercover cop, charged with bringing down the burgeoning empire built by Frankie, and Jackie is the neighbourhood psycho. Noonan soon rekindles his relationship with their sister, Kathleen (Robin Wright-Penn) and his loyalties are inevitably torn between duty and friendship. While that sounds like your stock undercover cop movie, its the gravity and intensity of the storytelling that makes State of Grace so memorable. Joanou has never put his visual sense to better use than he does here, with his camera conjuring up a vivid sense of Hells Kitchen in all its seedy glory, the gentrifying elements just beginning to crawl in alongside the taverns and the old tenements. The screenplay, by playwright Denis McIntyre, is resolutely serious and dour - it recalls the work of writer-director James Gray in its unremitting focus on the moral dilemma facing Noonan - and the story drifts inexorably towards a tragedy suggested from the first moments by Ennio Morricone's mournful, beautiful score. While Penn does his young-DeNiro thing and Ed Harris is as magnetic as ever, Oldman delivers what is possibly his best ever performance. If, in recent years, he has played one caricature too many, one shallow villain too many, revealed that manic grin one time too many, here he played a character who demanded such a performance. Jackie Flannery is a force of nature, prone to eruptions of ultra-violence, but loyal and sentimental and charming at the same time. Oldman makes him terrifying and hilarious and real, and he owes every psycho part he has gotten since to this performance. Joanou really gets to flex his directorial muscles in the films climax, an amazing slow motion gunfight in a bar while the St Patricks Day Parade passes by outside. Its a really self-conscious set-piece, the director calling attention to himself in the most obvious fashion possible, but it works brilliantly, somehow retaining the mood and style of the film while simultaneously exploding it.

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